Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal sure had a lot of build-up by the time the good ol’ Toronto Public Library finally got it in for me months after I’d requested it. I’d read review after glowing review which meant that I started reading with some trepidation. So, did it measure up?
If I talk plot, you’ll have a hard time believing that this book is ultimately an uplifting, feel-good story. This is not to say that there aren’t some terribly sad, life-is-not-fair aspects to this narrative that really do put a squeeze on your heart as you’re going along, but overall, this is a story that will leave you feeling (mostly) optimistic about the universe.
Addie has the misfortune of having a mother who is a loser. (I could put it more gently, but why sugar-coat). In the first chapter, we meet Addie and her mom (Mommers to Addie) as they are about to move into their new home. Their new home is a dingy old trailer surrounded by blacktop on a “medium busy corner” in Schenectady. They should be grateful, since Dwight, Addie’s ex-stepfather, is letting them live for free there because they don’t really have anywhere else to go. Since the divorce he’s moved on with his life, along with Addie’s two half-sisters, but he still works hard to be a presence in Addie’s life. Straight off, it’s clear who’s the adult in this mother-daughter relationship, as Addie’s mom does nothing but sulk about the negative aspects of their new arrangement, and when she’s not sulking or smoking or chatting online, she’s completely unpredictable and really doesn’t know how to be a proper mother to Addie.
Addie is pretty-nearly unfailingly optimistic. From time to time this is a bit of stretch in the believability department, but Addie does show her vulnerability just enough that we sense she is barely holding herself together, in spite of her efforts to look for the positive no matter what happens. She befriends a few characters around and about her new neighborhood, and they assume the place in her life that family would if her world was “normal,” the way she dreams it could be.
This is not a story where a lot happens, but it moves along at a great pace. This is because you’re so invested in the character, hoping that she’ll start getting the life and the care that she deserves. The tension comes entirely from the desperation of Addie’s situation as her mother goes off the rails and leaves Addie to fend for herself for increasingly long stretches. I have to say that the idea of this child, trying to make do all alone in this trailer on an empty lot was just awful, so sad and so bleak. There is this moment when Mommers is off on one of her “business trips” and Addie has been alone for several days and she starts checking the cupboards to do an inventory of her remaining food. When she sees that she’s running low, she decides to reassemble the empty macaroni and cheese boxes using glue and then she fills them with push pins so that they rattle around and sound full, just to reassure herself. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful way to communicate to a reader how Addie is strong and vulnerable all mixed together.
This novel is ideal for a book club or for literature circles in the classroom because of the complexity and perilousness of Addie’s situation. Discussion points / themes might be: responsibility, what makes a family, where hope comes from, being grateful for small things and heroism. Waiting for Normal is thought-provoking and written in wonderfully spare language, with a clear, honest, and sometimes funny voice.
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Waiting for Normal is published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins.